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Understanding trauma-responsive parenting 

Studies clearly demonstrate that children or youth who have experienced trauma respond better to parenting techniques that both address and acknowledge the life-long impacts of that trauma.  

But it can be hard to embrace a non-traditional and new parenting style, especially when many of us likely were raised by and are more familiar with the more traditional (and often consequence-based) parenting approach.  

Recognizing that children and youth deserve to be parented in the way that best addresses their actual needs is the first step to transitioning to a new parenting paradigm. Below, we offer a definition, as well as strategies for better understanding, implementing, and ultimately embracing trauma-responsive parenting.  

Understanding trauma-responsive parenting

Trauma-responsive parenting means 

  • Understanding the neurobehavioral aspect of behavior challenges 
  • Focusing on the relationship 
  • Acknowledging the child’s developmental age and how that may vary in different areas of their lives 
  • Avoiding shame or blame 

1. Understand trauma and loss as a brain injury  

Trauma changes developing brains, and it’s helpful to recognize it for what it is—a brain injury.  

Referring to this invisible disability as such reminds us that there is a physical reason for the behavior. Just as a child or youth who is blind or paralyzed does not choose their symptoms, neither does a child or youth with trauma control their physical condition. And just like those who are blind or paralyzed, a child or youth with trauma deserves expectations and support specific to their injury.  

To learn more about the physical impact of trauma, consider the following videos, accessible via YouTube:  

2. Prioritize connection  

Once you understand trauma’s impact, you can focus on addressing it.  

According to Karyn Purvis, co-creator of Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®), the best way to do so is building a quality relationship with your child or youth. As she explains in this introductory video (3 minutes), “As we connect to this child, as we build safety, we actually change brain chemistry [and] the wiring of the brain.”  

Spending time with children or youth matters, and a great way to connect is to do something fun together. Doing activities as a whole family or as a parent-child duo strengthens relationships, especially when the activity is one they enjoy.  

In addition to rewiring the brain, connection can serve as its own correction. For example, you can implement use the concept of time-in rather than timeout. If your child or youth hasn’t made their bed or put clothes away, work on fixing that together. Or shut the bedroom door and spend time with them and worry about cleaning later.  

Too often, traditional parenting prioritizes consequences, and parents can get so mired in corrections that they forget to have fun with their children. 

3. Consider targeted connection opportunities, such as rhythmic activities 

In this PDF article, “The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics: An Interview,” Dr. Bruce Perry recommends activities that heal trauma by stimulating the lower portion of the brain, saying, “[To] change any neural network in the brain, we need to provide … patterned repetitive rhythmic somatosensory activity. Music, dance, drumming, grooming a horse, jumping on a trampoline, swinging, massage, and a host of other everyday activities can be structured to help do this.” 

Consider finding rhythmic activities that your child or youth enjoys and that you can do together. This can help strengthen your relationship and heal their brain.  

4. Consider developmental age, rather than chronological age 

Children or youth with complex trauma often have a gap between their chronological and developmental ages, with studies showing that while the average chronological age of participants with trauma was nearly 10 years, their average developmental age was closer to that of 4.5 years.  

Trauma (including that of prenatal alcohol exposure) follows no template, instead affecting development differently across domains. For example, a child or youth with trauma might excel in expressing themselves verbally while also being emotionally immature and performing poorly at school. And the way trauma affects one child or youth might look different from how it affects another.  

Children deserve solutions that meet them where they are rather than supports based on their date of birth. When you better understand your child’s developmental age, you can better provide the guidance, comfort, and boundaries they need.  

When considering developmental age, consider these questions:  

  • Physical—What percentile are they in for height? How are their gross and fine motor skills? 
  • Social/emotional—What age children do they most like to play with? What games do they like? How do they respond when excited or upset? 
  • Language—How well do they understand what’s being said to them? How do they express themselves and communicate their wants and needs? 
  • Cognitive—How are they testing in school? Are they performing at grade level? Do they have diagnosed delays? 

5. Acknowledge that this change is hard 

Learning anything new—especially when it involves unlearning something as deeply ingrained as consequence-based parenting—can be difficult and requires time, patience, and lots of practice.  

Trauma-responsive parenting might not be how you were raised. Or you might anticipate judgement by friends and neighbors or worry that you will be seen as permitting bad behavior or coddling a disruptive youth.  

These are understandable concerns. Allow yourself these feelings. And then ask yourself: Has the traditional approach worked thus far and provided the desired outcome? 

Try the trauma-responsive parenting techniques for a set time period (such as three or six months), and compare those results to what you’re currently seeing.  

6. Become a behavior detective 

When parents correct behavior rather than addressing the trauma behind it, it’s akin to treating a broken leg by telling the patient to just not limp. Instead, everyone will be better served by digging deeper to understand why the child or youth is behaving a certain way. 

 In her blog post “Why We Misunderstand Traumatized Children’s Behavioral Challenges and How We Can Do Better,” Dr. Mona Delahooke says, “We fail these children when we simply target their behaviors, which are only the tip of the iceberg. Instead, we need to examine what is causing the behaviors. Only then can we properly address the pain and suffering that fuel the behavior.”  

Becoming a behavior detective can help you address the cause rather than the symptom. At its heart, it means investigating what is causing the youth’s anxiety or stress and triggering a challenging behavior. Consider keeping a log of every time your child rages, has a meltdown, or shuts down emotionally, noting what happened in the hours or even days before. Later, once they have fully calmed down (which may be much later), you can ask the child if they have insights about the event. Over time, you can often discover how to avoid or reduce the meltdowns by making changes that address the source of the anxiety or upset. 

7. Seek specific tips for specific behaviors 

Both parents and youth do best when challenging behaviors are addressed with strategies specific to the actions.  

Below are some ideas and resources for some behaviors that frequently upset parents:  

  • Lying—Recognize the difference between confabulation and lying. Confabulation is when the brain fills in gaps and is especially common when they’re anxious. If a child or youth is lying, focus on the reason for the lie rather than the lie itself. Perhaps they are scared of getting in trouble, which may have had serious consequences in the past. Consider the Discussion Guide: Lying, Confabulation, and Distorted Thinking for guidance when responding to lying.  
  • Manipulation—Karyn Purvis reminds us, “For the child from the hard place, manipulation may have become the way they believed they survived.” In her YouTube video How Do I Handle Manipulation and Control (7 minutes), Purvis offers tips, including offering appropriate levels of control and partnering with youth to identify and meet needs.  
  • Meltdowns—Focus on safety rather than embarrassment or judgement. Recommend distraction when the child first starts to lose it. (“Did you see that funny dog outside?” or “Look at this silly video of cute goats.”) Reasoning mid-meltdown doesn’t work, as the youth can’t access their brain’s reasoning center then. You don’t need to talk in that moment, other than to simply ask the youth what they need or what you can do. Afterward, log the strategies that helped to use for future meltdowns.  

If there’s a program supporting foster, adoptive, or kinship families near you, you can also ask them to help you identify resources and strategies for the behaviors you find most challenging.  

8. Release expectations, and embrace flexibility  

A key to trauma-responsive parenting is realistic expectations and taking life as is. Part of that involves recognizing that it will likely be you making the changes, rather than the child or youth.  

In Expanding Your Parenting Paradigm, Heather Forbes explains, “Trauma is very unpredictable, so our kids become very unpredictable. You may get up in the morning and expect that things are going to happen in A, B, C order, and all of sudden you realize, oops, that’s not happening…. But if your child is going off on X, Y, and Z, you’ve got to jump over to X, Y, Z.”  

9. Celebrate small successes 

When you adjust your expectations, you open yourself to focusing on your youth’s actual successes. These can be as simple as getting out the door for school on time without a meltdown. Or raising that F in math class to a C.  

Celebrate these successes with your youth. It’s important to emphasize what they are doing right, especially if their past involved a lot of correction. Additionally, shared celebration positively reinforces wanted behavior and strengthens the parent-child relationship.  

10. Connect with other parents who are using trauma-responsive parenting 

A great way to learn and succeed with trauma-responsive parenting is to connect with other parents who have already incorporated the techniques. Join a parent support group or if you have access to support services, ask if they can connect you with an experienced foster, adoptive, or kinship parent who can serve as a mentor or coach. This expands your support system, all while helping you gain a better understanding of complex trauma and how to parent children affected by it.  

11. Allow yourself and your child to feel your grief 

It’s painful to recognize that you and your child will face more difficulties than others because of a brain injury that has no quick fix. Acknowledge the heartbreak and grief around this, and give yourself permission to feel these feelings.  

You may also need to help navigate and support your child’s grief. A child or youth who can’t do everything their peers can suffers their own losses, and openly communicating about those losses can help them process their trauma’s impact, too.  

12. Remind yourself not to take behaviors personally 

In this YouTube video Advice for Struggling Caregivers (3.5 minutes), Laura Phipps recommends adopting the mantra that “behavior expresses a need.”  

“Many challenging behaviors feel very personal. They feel like it’s something the child is doing to you,” she says. “It can be very hard to separate out in those moments that what they are doing is not who they are.”  

13. Look for trauma-responsive resources  

Consider the information provided in the following:  

If you have a caseworker or have access to support services, you can also ask what resources they think would best support your circumstance. If so, ask if you can discuss the resource material together.  

Additionally, if you find a resource you really like, share what you learn with others supporting your child (teachers, extended family, etc.)  

14. Extend yourself grace 

Some parents feel guilt or shame after learning about trauma-responsive parenting for not understanding their child or youth in the past. Allow yourself to feel whatever feelings arise, but then allow yourself to also release them. Reassure yourself that you can’t help what you didn’t know before. Remember that what matters now is that you’re on the right path and that you’re here to support your child or youth the best you can with the tools you have right now.